Iowa Democrats brace for special session on abortion following Supreme Court ruling

By: - June 23, 2023 5:49 pm

Nearly 22 million women, girls and gender-nonconforming persons of reproductive age are now living in states where abortion has been banned or is in other ways inaccessible, a contingent of U.S. and global human rights groups noted in a letter to the United Nations. (Photo by Jennifer Shutt/States Newsroom)

Iowa Democrats are preparing for Republicans to hold a special session on abortion this summer following the state Supreme Court’s June 16 “fetal heartbeat” decision, Democratic leaders said Friday.

“I can’t imagine that they will wait until the legislative session to address this issue,” House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst told reporters. “I imagine we’ll have a special session — I don’t know that, but that’s my guess. And I imagine that’s because they can’t wait, right, they cannot wait to take these rights away. But what they do when they get there, I don’t know.”

Konfrst, Iowa Democratic Party Chairperson Rita Hart and Iowa Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-West Des Moines, held a news conference at the Capitol on Friday to discuss abortion access in Iowa following a year of major changes to legal protections for the procedure. Saturday marks a year since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision. It has also been a just over a year since the Iowa Supreme Court found there is no state constitutional right to an abortion.

While many other states with conservative state leadership enacted abortion bans and restrictions following the Dobbs ruling, abortion has remained legal in Iowa. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds and Republican legislative leaders said they did not take action on abortion during the 2023 legislative session because they were waiting for the Iowa Supreme Court to rule on overturning the injunction blocking enforcement of the 2018 “fetal heartbeat” law that attempted to ban abortions after six weeks.

The court maintained the injunction in a in a 3-3 split vote that automatically upheld the district court ruling. Konfrst said the court’s verdict was “good news,” but said Democrats know it will be “short lived.”

Abortion retains some legal protections under Supreme Court precedents

In the June 16 decision, Justice Thomas D. Waterman wrote the Iowa legislature was “enacting a hypothetical law” when Republicans approved the six-week ban in 2018, as abortion access was then a protected measure and would be struck down by the courts. Waterman added that a similar law could take effect if passed under Iowa’s current legal framework for abortion access, but noted that “uncertainty exists about whether a fetal-heartbeat bill would be passed today.”

Republicans hold a trifecta of power at the Iowa statehouse with a supermajority in the Senate and majority in the House — in addition to holding all but one of Iowa’s statewide-elected offices.

“We know for a fact that they won’t come back until they have enough votes to get this done,” Konfrst said. ” But I think that that process is not as easy as they think, because there’s so much disagreement within their caucus. And the extreme wing of their caucuses — both caucuses — have really pushed for things that will not pass constitutional muster either.”

Waterman wrote that abortion laws still must pass the “undue burden standard” to be deemed constitutional in Iowa under precedent from a 2015 Supreme Court decision. The standard requires the courts to evaluate future abortion laws by assessing whether a law creates significant obstacles for people seeking to access an abortion without serving a legitimate public interest.

Trone Garriott said Democrats are expecting to see not just action on abortion, but on the courts as well.

“We know that there will be attempts to change who’s on the courts, to change our state’s constitution, re-introduce new legislation — possibly even in special session,” Trone Garriott said. “And so Iowans need to speak out now about what they expect from their elected leaders.”

Democrats predict legislative action on Iowa’s courts

Bob Vander Plaats, the president and CEO of the Family Leader, a conservative Christian group, called for the three justices who ruled against lifting the injunction to resign or be impeached or ousted. He said the justices, all appointed by Republicans, were “politicizing the courts” and going outside constitution parameters in not allowing enactment of the ban.

Trone Garriott said the court did not make a “partisan decision” in the ruling.

“You can tell by the decision that they were working very hard to pay attention, to be very careful with the rule of law, legal precedent and process,” Trone Garriott said. “It’s important to have that kind of check and balance in our state governments, that this branch is truly independent, and they are important — it’s important they remain independent.”

Konfrst said it’s unclear what measures Republican lawmakers will pursue with regard to the state’s highest court, but said Democrats know “they’re not happy with the court.”

“Just remind everyone the court is completely nominated by Republicans. It’s their own justices that they nominated, who are acting independently,” she said. “I don’t know what they will do legislatively. But I believe all options are on the table based on their behavior and what they’ve been saying since this ruling.”

Hart said the discussion of abortion has extended outside the statehouse in Iowa, with 2024 Republican presidential candidates talking about abortion on the Iowa caucus trail.

“As we work to protect our rights here in Iowa, the 2024 Republican hopefuls are fighting to one-up each other on who can embrace the most extreme national abortion ban,” Hart said. “Their race for bottom has real consequences for Iowans and our nation.”

Some Republican candidates like former Vice President Mike Pence have said they would support a 15-week federal abortion ban, while others have said they support abortion policy to remain under states’ control.

A March Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll indicated that 61% of Iowans feel abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

“We’ve already seen miscarriage patients and sexual assault survivors be denied the health care that they need to heal and to go forward with their lives,” Hart said. “There isn’t a single candidate running to be the Republican nominee that has the compassion to stand up and defend the basic freedoms that Iowans have and continue to rely on.”

Planned Parenthood to close some Iowa centers

Abortion remains legal in Iowa, but abortion providers in the state are facing challenges. Officials with Planned Parenthood North Central States said in a news conference Friday that the organization has plans to restructure its services with three Iowa locations closing and the expansion of services in Ames, Cedar Rapids, Omaha and at Des Moines’ Susan Knapp Health Center.

The consolidation efforts are an attempt to meet the challenges of staffing shortages and rising costs while working to meet the growing demand for their services, Mazie Stilwell, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood North Central States said.

“I must emphasize that, while the number of Planned Parenthood health centers will decrease, these changes will increase the number of patients that we can see,” Stilwell said.

Iowa is facing health care shortages across the state, especially in the field of maternal health care. Lawmakers approved funding for OB-GYN training programs and expanded Reynolds’ More Options for Maternal Health program, which provides funding for maternal health care nonprofits that discourage abortion.

There are a number of issues behind the increased staffing shortages that health care providers have faced since the pandemic, said Sarah Traxler, the chief medical officer at Planned Parenthood North Central States. She noted that their organization’s workers face unique difficulties.

“One of the particular things about sexual and reproductive health care in general, is that there is a particular type of hostility toward the type of care that we provide, and hostility towards Planned Parenthood, which adds an additional layer of stigma and stress in working for our organization,” Traxler said.

Planned Parenthood North Central States saw a 9% increase in abortion procedures performed since Roe v. Wade was overturned, the organization reported, and double the number out-of-region patients seeking care.

As the organization works to navigate the “ongoing legislative and financial challenges” in Iowa and surrounding states, Stilwell said, its top priority is to ensure patients have access to their services.

“At a time when patients are facing increased confusion about accessing care, we must be a reliable and steady resource,” Stilwell said.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.